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Curr Biol. 2010 Mar 23;20(6):487-95. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2010.02.027. Epub 2010 Mar 11.

A hormone-activated central pattern generator for courtship.

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Broad Fellows Program and Division of Biology, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA 91125, USA.



Medicinal leeches (Hirudo spp.) are simultaneous hermaphrodites. Mating occurs after a stereotyped twisting and oral exploration that result in the alignment of the male and/or female gonopores of one leech with the complementary gonopores of a partner. The neural basis of this behavior is presently unknown and currently impossible to study directly because electrophysiological recording techniques disrupt the behavior.


Here we report that (Arg(8))-conopressin G and two other members of the oxytocin/vasopressin family of peptide hormones induce in Hirudo verbana a sequence of behaviors that closely mimic elements of spontaneous reproductive behavior. Through a series of progressively more reduced preparations, we show that one of these behaviors, a stereotyped twisting that is instrumental in aligning gonopores in preparation for copulation, is the product of a central pattern generator that consists of oscillators in ganglia M5 and M6 (the ganglia in the reproductive segments of the leech), and also in ganglion M4, which was not previously known to play a role in reproductive behavior. We find that the behavior is periodic, with a remarkably long cycle period of around five minutes, placing it among the slowest behavioral rhythms (other than diurnal and annual rhythms) yet described.


These results establish the leech as a new model system for studying aspects of the neuronal basis of reproductive behavior.

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